Tuned In

Are the Decency Cops Backing Off?

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The good thing about the broadcast-decency-regulation movement is that, as vast conspiracies go, it’s not too well organized. Last month, the FCC lurched forward, with an unprecedented volley of fines for decency violations. Now one of Capitol Hill’s biggest decency scolds is lurching backward. 

In an editorial in CableFAX magazine this week, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska–once of the loudest proponents of an activist FCC–suggests that he’s changed his thinking on how much the government should be involved in controlling what goes on TV. The priority, he writes, should be on educating parents to use V-chips, blocking menus and other parental-control technology already on the market.

"Our government," Stevens writes, "should not be in the business of choosing which programs are appropriate for our nation’s children. By showing the public how to use available blocking mechanisms, we ensure those in the best position to make viewing decisions – parents – are able to do so."

Preach it, Brother Stevens! And welcome to the congregation!  On his excellent TV blog, Kansas City Star TV critic Aaron Barnhart cites the editorial as a sign that the right is "backpedaling" on its decency campaign. I hope he’s right, and certainly Stevens has been a key point man on the Hill for threats to (probably unconstitutionally) extend government content controls to cable.

But I’m not ready to bust out the champagne yet. Stevens’ position is sensible and practical, but I doubt it will satisfy the agitators at groups like the Parents Television Council. The fact is, to many of these media moralizers, exercising choice for themselves is not good enough. When I wrote a cover story on the decency wars last year, a refrain that kept coming up from the regulate-decency camp was the fear of their kids being exposed to other people’s kids who, in turn, have been exposed to media they feel is too violent and sexual–they liken it to secondhand smoke or cultural pollution. To be blunt: it’s not good enough for them that they make the "right" choice for their kids. You must also be prevented from making the "wrong" choice for your kids.

The thing is, as a parent, I understand this concern. Pop culture is something larger and harder to control than simply what makes it into your home. But that doesn’t change the fact that different families have different moral beliefs, and it is not the government’s job to privilege one over the other — in fact, it is antithetical to democracy. As a parent, it’s my job to monitor what my kids watch at home, but my job doesn’t end there. I also have to, as best as I can, instill in them values and independent thinking, so that they can go out into the larger world, as they inevitably have to, and still keep their moral bearings.

That’s not an easy job, and neither I nor anyone else can expect to always succeed at it. But it’s my job–not the government’s. Sen. Stevens seems to be coming to understand that. Let’s hope his thinking, as they like to say in Washington, trickles down.